July 13, 2024

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Interview with Debbie Cunningham: I believe we are all called to “brighten the corner where we are”: Video

Jazz interview with jazz singer Debbie Cunningham. An interview by email in writing. 

JazzBluesNews.Space: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?

Debbie Cunningham: – I was born in Chicopee, MA but grew up in a small south central town in Pennsylvania called Mt. Holly Springs. (Baseball enthusiasts may know its claim to fame as the hometown of Sid Bream.) At 3-4 years of age I was already fascinated with music. I would sit for hours listening and singing to a small child’s record player we had. When I was in fourth grade, my music teacher noticed my propensity for music and invited me to join the 5th and 6th grade choir. At 12, I was already writing little songs. “Green Apple Blossom” was my first song written about a tree I passed as I walked to school everyday.

JBN.S: – What got you interested in picking up the jazz vocal? What teacher or teachers helped you progress to the level of playing you have today? What made you choose the jazz vocal?

DC: – I sang musical theatre, pop songs and gospel music all through high school. It was my high school choir director that was instrumental in pointing me to a music degree in college. Actually, without her encouragement, I probably wouldn’t have gone to college for music at all. But all my training was classical. I obtained a Bachelor of music (voice performance) at Temple University in Philadelphia, PA. While I was there, I became friends with a Jazz pianist named Barry Sames. He used to come into my practice room and throw Jazz charts at me and say, “You should be singing jazz, Debbie, not classical.”  I would laugh and say he was crazy. I’m not sure why but perhaps because no one had suggested it to me before. I had all the notes for a coloratura soprano so I assumed that was my destiny. However, it really wasn’t my passion. I have always loved Jazz standards and when I sing them it feels like a second skin to me. I grew up listening to that style of music on the radio. I didn’t choose jazz until I was turning forty years old. I had been a stay at home mom for about 10 years at the time and I was reflecting on what I had accomplished and still wanted to accomplish in my life. It was then that I realized I wanted to pursue jazz going forward. So I called Barry, now twenty years later, and asked him if he’d produce my first Jazz album. Of course he said, “Yes!”

JBN.S: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?

DC: – When I decided to pursue Jazz music, my husband and I and our 2 kids were living in middle Tennessee. Since I had been classically trained, I knew I needed to study the genre but I couldn’t go back to school full time while raising my kids. They were ages 7 and 10 at the time. So I listened to many different styles of Jazz and blues and then took evening classes at the Nashville Jazz workshop. Many local professional jazz musicians teach classes there when they are in town. Lori Mechem, one of the owners of the school really helped me learn jazz phrasing. Ron Browning was my vocal coach there and he helped me develop different sounds and affects with my voice instead of just singing “pretty” lines as we are taught to do in classical training. But then I went to Los Angeles for a conference and I took one vocal lesson with a coach out there, Steven Memel. He was the teacher who really helped me tap into my chest voice for jazz. It really made all the difference. Then after that it was all about just doing it. The practice of it all at home and in public. All the gigs I did around town became my live practicing ground. I noticed what people responded to in the music and kept doing those things.

JBN.S: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?

DC: – My college voice teacher was a stickler for rhythm. She had me practice normal vocal lines on multiple syncopated rhythms just to get the notes truly centered in my voice. That increased my rhythmic ability exponentially.  I still practice that way to this day.

JBN.S: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now?

DC: – In the arrangements, I love the lush richness of 7th and 9th chords and I really enjoy the intensity of a minor key. As a vocalist, a chromatic line sung in tune moves me, like Johnny Mercer’s Midnight Sun.  One of my all time favorite songs is Irving Berlin’s, Say It Isn’t So (1932).  The song was written when Berlin was suffering a loss of confidence following several setbacks. The melodic lines are haunting over the chord structure.  It is a melodic depiction of sadness. I mean you can “hear” it. Stunning.

 

JBN.S: – Which are the best jazz albums for you of 2017 year?

DC: – Turn up the quiet, Diana Krall.

JBN.S: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?

DC: – For vocal music, you must have an understanding of the lyric as well as a soulful musical expression. The composer wrote it with intent. When you communicate that lyric through with the melody it may translate to mean different things to different people but it will still “speak.”  That is when it has an impact on the listener.

JBN.S: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

DC: – When we recorded “When I look in your eyes” by Leslie Bricusse for my first album, we had decided it would be just a duet with acoustic guitar and vocal. The guitarist was a young Brazilian musician who was a friend of my producer and just happened to be in the states at the time. We met at the studio and started to run through the song but his interpretation wasn’t matching the sound I had in my head. So I stopped singing and went into the guitar booth and asked him if he understood the lyric. I explained that in my opinion the song is an intimate expression between two people after a long relationship saying goodbye at the end of their life. It’s very emotional. He simply said, “Oh, I Understand.” I went back to the vocal booth and we sang through the entire song for the first take. When we finished, you could hear a pin drop in the studio. No one said a word. I finally pushed the button and asked, “Second pass?” But my producer, Barry said, “No! That was perfect. We couldn’t even breathe in here it was so beautiful. I will not let you record another pass. That’s the one.”

JBN.S: – Many aspiring musicians are always looking for advice when navigating thru the music business. Is there any piece of advice you can offer to aspiring students or even your peers that you believe will help them succeed and stay positive in this business?  

DC: – That it IS a business. Sometimes we get so caught up in creating our “art” that we forget that. You must not ignore the business side of music especially taxes and keeping good records. Musicians are entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs need to understand basic business principles. If you start out getting education in those things it will help you tremendously in the lifetime of your career. And be in community with other musicians. We learn so much from one another.

JBN.S: – Аnd furthermore, can jazz be a business today or someday?

DC: – It can be difficult making a living as a musician but it is not impossible. You must find a way to have multiple streams of income “under the umbrella of your art.”  Performing as well as composing, teaching classes or workshops, speaking, writing books, coaching others and licensing your songs are all ways to add to your music income.  Always be learning and growing in your craft and be open to new opportunities.

JBN.S: – Which collaboration have been the most important experiences for you?

DC: – Working with my college friend, Barry Sames, on my first jazz album was important because he was the person who planted the seed of Jazz in me.   On my second album, I collaborated with my husband, Derek, on the string arrangements. I hear solo string lines in my head and he can arrange around that and add to it. He has a great ear for arranging. It was really fun to work with him on that project and share that experience.

JBN.S: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?

DC: – I think increasing jazz education in schools is key and also writing new and current material for this next generation. Finding ways to make our music appealing to a younger generation too. Tierney Sutton arranged “Ding Dong, The Witch is Dead!” from the Wizard of Oz on her album, Something Cool. I realize this isn’t a “standard” but it is representative of taking an old song and creatively giving it a modern sound. I really love it. Her interpretation brings a fresh and fun approach to a very old song. It is that kind of creativity that will bring jazz into the next century. We can still preserve the American Songbook. Those tunes are golden but staying current and giving fresh takes on old songs will usher in a new generation of listeners.

JBN.S: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?

DC: – Her is one of my favorite quotes from John Coltrane; “My music is the spiritual expression of what I am — my faith, my knowledge, my being…When you begin to see the possibilities of music, you desire to do something really good for people, to help humanity free itself from its hang-ups…I want to speak to their souls.”  I believe the same. I want my music and my life to be a reflection of my faith & knowledge in order to inspire others to be their best in this world. Music is a powerful tool that speaks to us in a way that mere talking does not. I believe we are all called to “brighten the corner where we are.”

JBN.S: – What’s the next musical frontier for you?

DC: – A Jazz Christmas album maybe.  My fans have been asking for a while. I also have a few jazz choral pieces I’d like to write and a string piece I started years ago but never finished. Maybe I’ll finally do that.

JBN.S: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?

DC: – Pentatonix! They aren’t a jazz group but there is influence there. I love their sound and their creativity with the voice. Also Latin jazz. I love the energy.

JBN.S: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself …

DC: – Yes. How did you get interested in Jazz? Do you play any instruments?

JBN.S: – I’m a jazz collector, I have a million CDs in all the jazz legends and the current musicians. This was a nap of 15 years ago. I do not play music on a musical instrument. And this web site celebrating jazz 24/7 since 2007. Editorial offices in Boston – MA – USA, Paris – France and in Yerevan – Armenia, the website is read all over the world. It has 33,468 followers and it is every day visited by more than 57,000 readers by visitor counter Google Analitics!!!

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

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